In July, 2020, the two of us met for the first time as inaugural co-directors of the University of California, Riverside, School of Medicine’s new Health Equity, Social Justice, and Anti-Racism (HESJAR) curricular initiative. Beginning with our initial conversations it became clear that addressing speech — physician speech, patient speech, medical school speech — would be central to our journey.
For an entire year (2020-2021) we planned.This involved reading, particularly about efforts at other medical schools.It also involved listening: to students; to other faculty and staff; and particularly through a series of community conversations in which medical students interviewed local residents about their experiences with the health care system.Those conversations deeply informed our curriculum development.
A Difficult Conversation about Difficult Conversations forDeveloping Medical Educators of the 21st Century: New Ideas and Skills for Adaptable and Inclusive Learning Environments Conference
February 4, 2022 (Revised, February 6, 2022)
Let’s start with today’s ground rules.None.No rules; no powerpoints.
But three hopes.That you speak honestly without obsessing about maybe saying the wrong thing, a bane to diversity discussions.That you contemplate divergent ideas.And that you reflect openly on your own perspectives by posting comments and questions in the chatbox as we go along.
So let’s turn to our theme, difficult conversations about diversity and health equity.Health equity conversations necessarily involve discomfort because they address the idea of group diversity, not just random individual differences.
America has a long history of racial segregation and systemic racism that made it difficult for ethnic minorities to achieve financial and economic stability. Well-researched academic studies have found that “even after decades of growing diversity…most Americans still live in racially segregated neighborhoods.”
A study conducted by the University of Minnesota found that 64% of the urban city population are people of color while only 34% are white. Take a look at the graph below:
Consider the tremendous economic opportunity inherent in a single percentage point. Think about the enormous economic impact of moving the needle of progress along a pathway toward racial equity by just a single percentage point.
First, let’s define the term, “racial equity” to establish a common frame of reference and understanding. For many, racial equity refers to equitable access to resources and opportunity. That definition is accurate but incomplete. In the realm of homeowners, business owners and investors, “equity” refers to “ownership.” Equitable ownership of lands, homes, businesses and intellectual property are valued assets that can be passed onto future generations as “generational wealth.” This is a more complete definition of racial equity in measurable terms.
It certainly would be easier if everybody used words the same way.Clearer communication.Fewer misunderstandings.But no such luck.Words mean what people make them mean.And people make meaning differently.
Sociolinguists refer to the idea of floating signifiers: words that mean more than one thing. For example, when one person says X meaning A, but another person hears X but understands it to mean B. This constantly happens in diversity discussions.
Take the word justice.Ask ten people what it means and you may get ten very different answers.When people in one of my workshops or classrooms start talking about social justice and I ask them individually what they mean, I am likely to get as many different answers as there are people in the room.Lots of virtue signaling; little clear communication.
In July, 2020, the two of us met for the first time as inaugural co-directors of the University of California, Riverside, School of Medicine’s new Health Equity, Social Justice, and Anti-Racism (HESJAR) curricular initiative.The school handed us those six words.The rest was up to us.
As the debate rages on the extent of equity and social justice for all, two perspectives are emerging. On the one hand, the traditional school of thought represents people who believe that things are going well and that the system operates well based on their conception of equity and social justice for all. These traditionalists assert that our system is fair and that it works as it is supposed to do. They further claim that the system’s operation aligns with the founding fathers’ statements in the 1776 Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that their Creator endows them with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
A year ago, who would have predicted that Critical Race Theory (CRT) would have become a 2021 national buzz word?A buzz word for those attacking it.A buzz word for those defending it.Probably with relatively few of those attackers and defenders actually having read much of it.
I have, but it’s not easy going.Lots of ideas.Lots of jargon.Lots of obscurantist legal analysis.But if you stick with it, CRT can be very thought-provoking.
CRT is based on a simple premise: the law is not neutral.As a result, institutions and systems that arise from the law will not be neutral. When Mark Twain asked a friend to explain his position on a controversial issue, the friend answered, “I’m neutral.”To which Twain responded, “Then whom are you neutral against?”
Hear the conversation about equity in education from these experts based in Chattanooga, Tennessee. This podcast is part of the ADR Black-Jewish Dialogues.
Ardena Garth Hicks: Education Activist
Ardena is a Hamilton County native and practicing attorney who is the 2020 Legal Aid Society Pro Bono Attorney of the Year. She is a member of the Hamilton County Partnership Network Board of Directors, appointed by TN Education Commissioner Candace McQueen. The Partnership’s charge is to “review the progress of the five schools in the Partnership Network- which have been deemed priority schools by the state…and make recommendations to the Hamilton County Board of Education and Network leadership to support students’ growth and development.”
She is President of Chattanooga Endeavors, Inc., a non-profit organization which advocates for the interests of citizens repatriating from incarceration. Ardena previously was Special Prosecutor for Child Abuse cases with the Hamilton County District Attorney’s office. She served as Hamilton County’s first elected District Public Defender from 1990 to 2014 (3 successive 8-year terms), having been appointed to the newly-created position by Gov. Ned McWherter in 1989. Ardena graduated as a Ooltewah HS valedictorian, earned her bachelor’s degree at Middle TN State U. and earned her Juris Doctor (JD) degree from the U. of Kansas.
Dr. Jill Keegan Levine: Education Administrator
Jill is the Chief of Innovation and Choice for Tennessee’s Hamilton County Schools, a district of over 45,000 students. Prior to this role, she served as the Chief of the Opportunity Zone, a learning community focused on turnaround of the twelve highest needs schools in the district, as well as serving previously as the Chief Academic Officer of the school district.
After graduating from Wellesley College with a double major in Music and History, Jill began her career teaching 3rd grade and directing musical theater productions in the New Orleans Public Schools. She was the principal of Normal Park Museum Magnet, a Chattanooga Pre-K through 8th grade school, for 14 years. She led the transformation of two low performing schools into award winning, innovative, exciting and challenging places of learning. In 2012, Jill was recognized as the National Magnet Schools Principals of the Year. From 2013-2015, she served in the Obama administration as the first full time Principal Ambassador Fellow at the US Department of Education. In that capacity, she worked closely with Secretary Arne Duncan to increase the department’s focus on the importance of school leadership.
Our approach to Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) is broken. We have done the same thing over and over for years, expecting better representation and more equitable treatment, all to no avail. In fact, many people still don’t know exactly what D&I is.
At every turn, there’s news about people being mistreated, excluded, and harmed. The social and political unrest often seem impossible to escape. Situations arise on a regular basis that create a social media nightmare for organizations resulting in public shaming and forced apologies. The mental, emotional, and physical toll this turmoil takes impacts us all, regardless of our role— victim, perpetrator, or observer.
We can’t fix the mess we’re in with a 2-hour training session. Creating a world that is truly more equitable for everyone is a process. It takes time and practice.
Cultivating compassion can help us nurture more connected communities and workplaces. On the surface, compassion sounds like a soft skill. However, compassion isn’t just about being kind to other people and doing nice things for them. Instead, it’s an active process through which we build skills and knowledge to understand what kind of help is wanted, rather than assuming what is needed.
This article is distilled from my book, “The D Word: 12 Steps to Diversity Recovery,” which is focused on building the skills needed to bring a more humanitarian approach to D&I using compassion and resilience.